If you want your child to speak, read and understanding English well, then it’s important to build their vocabulary at home. As a parent, you can help your son or daughter learn new words and improve by following the tips in this study guide! Small changes in daily routine to introduce more “English contact time” can lead to big progress over time for you child. Let’s find out how…
1. Label it up!
Most English schools and classrooms stick word labels on things to help children form a connection between objects and the words that represent them in the language. For example: clock, chair, door, table, whiteboard, etc. You can do the same at home to help your child learn everyday vocabulary!
Focus on objects your child will see or use a lot. The more often the child sees the label, the easier it will be to remember the word. If you ask your child to help you make and decorate the labels, they will pay more attention to them. It will also give them a chance to practise writing and spelling the words you want them to learn. Make this an exercise you do together and add new labels regularly.
Labels or signs can also help children learn more complex vocabulary – e.g. for school tests. Create a list or table, write in the words to learn, and stick this up in a highly visible place: above your child’s bed, on the fridge door or next to the TV. Remind your child about these lists and ask them a couple of questions each day to test their knowledge of the words. For example:
How do you spell _____?
What is another word for _____?
Can you tell me what _____ means?
For more ideas on common household vocabulary to use for your first word labels, check out this video guide.
2. Magnetic letters
Spelling is a big problem in English, even for British and American children. This is because English is not a “phonetic language”. We don’t pronounce every letter/sound we see and this can be very confusing, especially for younger learners. For this reason, we need to help our children with their spelling as early as possible!
Buy some magnetic letters and use your fridge or a small magnetic whiteboard to spell names and words with your child. If your mother tongue uses a different alphabet, then allow more time for your child to get faster at spelling English words on the board.
Start by making some simple words with the letters yourself, such as your child’s name or the name of their favourite animal, to show them what they can do with the magnets. Encourage your child to play around with the magnetic letters independently to make short words. When your child writes something on the board, take the time to notice it, read it aloud, and help them correct any spelling mistakes by moving the letters.
To test your child’s knowledge, add some misspelled words and ask them to correct these by rearranging the letters. You could test their understanding of English homophones in this way too, e.g. there, their, they’re. For more advanced learners, you could choose words that have the same sounds spelled in different ways, e.g. rough (f), elephant (f), puff (f).
You can also play fun spelling games with your child. Try this one called “Mouse & Cheese”.
When your child makes a mistake with a word, encourage them to try again. If a task is too difficult, help them by offering to do it together. Remember to say “well done!” whenever your child gets an answer right, and give a small reward for bigger tasks that are completed successfully. It’s normal for children to make the same mistakes many times before they 100% learn the differences between English words, e.g. which vs. witch, there vs. their, effect vs. affect.
3. Be a commentator!
It may feel a little silly to talk to yourself, but it’s important to remember that children listen to what their parents say, even if you aren’t speaking to them directly. It’s a useful way to increase how much English your child hears every day. If you don’t know what to say, you can describe what you are doing or what you see around you. This is a spontaneous activity.
Native English speakers with young children who are just learning to speak will do something similar called “commentating”. For example, if you are cooking breakfast and your child is in the room, try to describe what you are doing. Your monologue might sound like this:
First, I have to put the butter in the pan. Where is the butter? Oh, here it is!
Next, I’ll crack the eggs into the pan. Where are the eggs? Here they are! Crack!
Now I’ll put the egg in the pan and fry it. I think I’ll do two eggs. One for you, one for me.
Here, can you throw away the egg shells for me. Thank you!
Notice that some words, like butter and egg, are repeated many times. The more your child hears a word in context, the better they’ll remember it. If they hear similar things every morning when you’re making breakfast and doing other parts of your daily routine, they’ll remember actions and sentences better too.
4. Ask lots of questions
Children often struggle to have conversations in English. This can be because their vocabulary is limited, because they lack confidence and are afraid of making mistakes, or because they just can’t think of anything to say. You can help by asking your child lots of questions!
Try to ask questions about topics that are of interest to your child. Ideally, these should be questions that need more than a yes/no answer. It’s also good to be able to follow up with a “why?” to push your child to give a fuller answer with more detail. For example:
What game are you playing? How do I play too?
Who’s the character with the big red nose? Is he a bad guy? Why?
Who’s your favourite character? What do you like about him? Why?
When you ask questions, this pushes your child to speak more. However, remember that long conversations in English can be tiring and stressful for children. Therefore, it’s better to have lots of short conversations with breaks in the middle. Repeating the same types of conversations around the same games or activities will also help reinforce vocabulary.
5. Play games for prizes
If your child isn’t very excited about learning English, you could turn vocabulary practice into “a game”. Teachers often do this to help children learn while also having fun. Before you start playing, remember to explain what counts as “a win” for your child, e.g. they need to score 10 points or complete 5 short word games. If your son or daughter is successful, then you can give them a small reward like a favourite treat or 15 minutes’ play time on an iPad.
If you have flashcards, you can test your child’s vocabulary by shuffling them into a random order and showing them one by one. Give your child five seconds to remember the correct word (and order) if they want to win the point. You could also spread lots of flashcards on the floor or table for a listening challenge. Say a word aloud and give your child five seconds to pick out the card that matches to win the point.
You can practise action vocabulary by giving instructions like: “touch the table”, “touch your nose”, “jump”, or “pick up a book”. Give the child one chance to do the correct action, but don’t press them for time unless you’re okay with them running around the house!
For more fluent children, you can ask questions like: “What time is it exactly?”, “What animal has big ears and a long nose?” or “Can you describe your favourite meal?” Encourage them to speak in full sentences to score the point, e.g. “I ate a ham sandwich for lunch” instead of just “Sandwich”. You could also offer them double points if they can ask you a good question!
The main objective is not to win or lose. It is to encourage your child to do regular vocabulary practice for a certain period of time each day. If you are playing to win e.g. 10 points, don’t declare it a loss when the child makes a mistake and only scores 9. Instead, give them a chance to win a bonus point by doing an additional vocabulary task. We want to reward good effort, not penalise mistakes.
6. Create a competition!
If you have two or more children, they probably already compete with each other! Try making a simple scoreboard and award points for achievements like: good English homework, completing English games/tasks (like the ones described above), or learning 10 new words.
If you have an only child, see if they have any friends who are also learning English. Then talk to the parents about setting up a friendly competition between them. Declare a winner either once a week or once a month, then erase all the points and start again!
If the children have different levels of English, then give them different tasks to complete. Make sure you also praise or reward the “loser” so their effort is recognised. As we mentioned earlier, the aim here is to motivate the child to engage more with English. The winning vs. losing part is less important.
It’s also a good idea to create English tasks or games that promote teamwork between the children. For example, you could play kids vs. adults. A good prize for the kids’ team might be a day trip to an interesting place, like a zoo or museum. If you’re going to give occasional prizes, perhaps also try to make these connected with English.
Does your child like stickers? If so, you could use stickers to keep track of points! Download these printable reward charts. They are designed for remembering to do household chores, but you could change the tasks to: completed English homework, learned 10 new words, won a spelling game, etc.
7. Read together once a day
Does your child like stories? Reading together is a great way to build vocabulary and get a better understanding of grammar too. Try to read with your child for 15 minutes each day.
Look for books aimed at native English speakers about two years younger than your child. If the book has pictures, talk about these together. Ask what your son or daughter thinks is happening in each picture before you read the page. See if they can guess what will happen in the story!
Bedtime can be the best time to read together, but it’s important not to leave it too late as your child may be tired and unable to concentrate. A good method can be to take it in turns to read pages in the book. That way you can share the reading.
8. Give online courses a try
Nowadays, kids spend more time on mobiles and iPads. There are many English vocabulary apps out there to help your child learn new words and phrases. These can be a fun addition to your overall learning plan. We’d recommend short sessions of 5-10 minutes per day.
9. Use songs to explore vocabulary
If your child likes listening to music at home, add some English songs to your playlist! As well as nursery rhymes and the Disney Library (for younger kids), simple pop or rock songs with clear lyrics can also provide a fun way of learning new words.
A lot of English teachers recommend Ed Sheeran because his songs are often slow, have clear lyrics, and repeat the same words frequently.
It’s very easy to find videos on YouTube with songs and lyrics (as subtitles). Just do a search for your child’s favourite English songs or pop groups!
10. Go outdoors!
You can practise English anywhere, at home or outside! If you’re walking or travelling somewhere with your child, try to use this free time to discover new words or play vocabulary games. Here are a couple of ideas to help you use English outside the house:
Explore vocabulary connected with different situations/settings. For example, the park, the supermarket, the zoo, the seaside, the football stadium. Each time you visit a place, give your child a small list of new words to learn in the car. These words should be thematically connected with the location or situation. Practise the words when you reach the destination!
Play “I Spy”. Pick a secret object, such as a picture of a cat on someone’s bag, and say “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…C!” Your child then has to guess the object you can both see. If your child is struggling with the alphabet, you can focus on phonics, and say “I spy with my little eye, something beginning with…Ca!” That way, your child only has to focus on how words sound. Take turns after each correct guess.